Monday, July 30, 2007

Floating on Faith in the Sea of Doubt

It all began when Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time became assigned reading for a theology class on pastoral interpretation of the Bible. Though the school administrator was less than enthusiastic about the text choice, he nevertheless supported the instructor’s choice but warned us students that we were about to face material and thoughts that we had not encountered before (incidentally, Marcus Borg is considered a “heretic” in certain circles) and that had the potential to upset some. What can I say? That warning alone was reason enough to buy the book; taking the class was just icing on the cake!

Up to the point of reading the book, I had always been pretty comfortable in the tenets of my faith. I had been taught since childhood that the stories of the Bible are what they are, are true, and are not open to question. This is how it seems to go with early childhood religious education. Young children are not capable of “high-minded” theology nor do they have the capacity to think critically, so “Jesus loves me, this I know...” is about all the serious Bible study young children need to have. The more I think about it, however, the more I wonder how critical or high-minded any of us needs to be because the thoughts and ideas presented not only in this particular text but also in subsequent readings has the potential to lend itself to severe doubts so much so that EVERYTHING is called into question. EVERYTHING.

Even though such critical thoughts that question fond Bible lessons and our traditional teachings are summarily dismissed by staunch conservatives and fundamentalists, it is a grave disservice to disciples that such critique is out there and not seriously confronted or addressed. Blaming “those damn liberals” is not enough to cause a reasonable, thinking person to reject a concept only at the word of another. Maybe it is that we Christians take ourselves far too seriously to be taken seriously by non-believers.

It occurred to me after a recent discussion with a friend that each of us has the potential to be completely afraid to confront our own faith. Now how can this possibly be if our faith is ingrained in our very souls, the total sum of our spiritual existence? How can we have the kind of abiding faith we believe ourselves to have and still feel threatened by heretical thought (remember, heresy is not necessarily bad; only by definition: different)? My friend warned me that there is material we ought not to be reading because of the potential threat to faith, exposing us to ideas that are contrary to what we ought to embrace. Again, how can this be if our faith is genuine? How can the thoughts and ideas of mere mortals be a threat to that which can only be divinely imparted to us?

John Wesley, the recognized founder of the Methodist movement in England, suffered doubts for much of his professional life. During a particularly troublesome time during a storm aboard a ship bound for America, Wesley noticed the Moravians on deck singing hymns and continuing with their work while Wesley was huddled below deck with others and praying for safety in the storm. The display of faith by the Moravians had a profound impact on Wesley so much so that he sought guidance and counsel from Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader, upon his return to England. Wesley was encouraged to “preach faith until you have it; then you will preach faith because you have it.”

Wesley did finally find his inner peace with his Aldersgate experience, so maybe there is such a thing as working to convince oneself of a certain truth until one is finally convinced. Still, it almost seems as though Wesley had to somehow manipulate himself into believing what he thought he ought to believe until his “heart was strangely warmed” at Aldersgate. Speculating on precisely what Wesley actually encountered, however, is no more fair or just than judging someone based only on physical appearance. We have no idea about what Wesley encountered except by his written accounts. For the purpose of choosing a path, this should be good enough … for now.

It can be dangerous to defend a particular doctrine, for instance, without fully understanding its historical context. There are few, if any, contemporary doctrines that cannot be traced back to the Reformation and even earlier, but to buy into a particular doctrine or thought discipline merely because someone has promised damnation if you don’t is not faith at all; it is fear of uncertainty, and it serves no useful purpose. The only kind of faith that can be formed under such circumstances is the fleeting kind of faith that will fail at the first sign of trouble.

There is an Aldersgate experience in store for any who earnestly seek, but the search must be for something grander than self. It seems that Wesley was enabled to receive such a heart-warming experience because even though he did write of concerns for the state of his soul, he dedicated himself to the cause of social justice. Though he was as fallible as any mortal can be, he nevertheless seemed to understand that his own place in the realm of the Holy was secondary.

Faith can be a scary thing because there will always on some level be doubts, but we need not fear these doubts nor should we be afraid to explore thoughts and ideas that are foreign to us. For instance, it should be of no great concern for a Christian to read from the Koran or the Book of Mormon. The truth is that we cannot hope to earn the respect of those with whom we would disagree if we cannot, or will not, meet them where they are. Reading such material can cause those who are weak in the faith to stumble; for these, it is dangerous. But if we are afraid to confront and challenge our own faith when we are not seriously threatened, our faith will fall like the house built on sand in the midst of a storm when the threat is more substantial. Like physical exercise for muscles, faith must be allowed to stretch its own legs. It is ok to take faith out for a spin to see what it is actually capable of.

Challenges to our faith and the doubts that will certainly come are nothing to fear. It is within the questions we will soon be compelled to ask that a holy conversation can begin. It is during this conversation when the Lord Himself will determine whether and when we are able and willing to receive that most divine gift of all: faith. Then, and only then, will it become the kind of unshakable, abiding faith that will carry us through the worst of times. It is the kind of faith that, in spite of trouble, will enable us to express our gratitude for the experience. It is the kind of faith from whence life is truly begun, the kind of life that is without end.

Page 10b

Paul Greenberg is the editorial page editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as well as a contributing columnist not only for that paper but has also been featured in Jewish World Review. Like so many of my favorite writers, Mr. Greenberg has a way with words. He is obviously very well read and expresses himself so poignantly especially when he writes of his immigrant mother’s experiences upon coming to the US (some of my favorite stories), just as a for instance. He has been “accused” of using $20 words when a $2 word would do, but these critics obviously miss the flow of whatever he happens to be writing about. Mr. Greenberg has a real poetic flair about his writing style.

On July 25, 2007, Mr. Greenberg wrote an article about his family and their celebration of the birth of his new granddaughter entitled, “And so it goes” with a little family history to help connect the dots. On the same page (10b) were two different (yet similar) editorials about two different (yet similar) tragedies: one of a minor league first base coach who was hit and killed by a line drive foul ball right here in North Little Rock, Arkansas, the other of a man who was shot and killed by a stray bullet from a purse snatching gone bad, also right here in North Little Rock, Arkansas – all on the same day.

Both men were close to the same age (35 and 40, respectively), and neither was an intended victim (there is no indication that the shooter in the robbery was actually trying to kill anyone even though he is charged with capital murder in the crime). It would be hard to consider a murder to be a “freak accident” as if it were something completely out of the ordinary, yet the man was killed in a Wal Mart parking lot on a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the commission of a crime that is not typically associated with a fire arm. This poor man just stepped out of his car and into the path of a bullet.

On the opposing op-ed page were the typical letters to the editor and a couple of “I hate Bush and/or the establishment” blah-blah-blah commentaries on the particular gripe of the day. Each one touched on a particular topic that certainly meant something to each writer and each topic was important in its own context. In the “grand scheme”, however, page 11b was just not worthy of significant attention, not following page 10b.

Life is what it is. It doesn’t matter how important others may see such a life as having any particular impact one way or the other. What does matter is that in the scheme of life, there is unbound potential. Absent life, there is nothing. No potential. No significant anything. No particulars to consider one way or the other. Just. Nothing. And it is not a matter of a pendulum of importance swinging too far in one direction or the other. It either is, or it isn’t. For the pure purpose of matter on this earth and in this realm, there is no such thing as “too much” life because life is. It just is. Its value immeasurable; its potential incalculable. In death exists nothing; not “too much” or “too little. It. Is. Just. Nothing.

Far be it from me to decide what is or is not worthy of serious consideration but in the “grand scheme”, I think I’ve nailed it.

Dancing with the Devil

A couple of weeks ago, NBA referee Tim Donaghy was named by the FBI as a suspect in possibly fixing games he was officiating. It was also revealed that Mr. Donaghy may have had contacts with a “low level mob figure” associated with the Gambino family related to his apparent gambling problem, the primary problem now being that he is about to turn himself in to authorities. Over the weekend, Mr. Donaghy also had requested police protection due to alleged threatening phone calls.

I probably have most of “The Godfather” series memorized, but what I know about the Mafia could still fit on the head of a pin. Still, feeding my fascination with the mob requires that I read as much as possible so much so that as soon as Mr. Donaghy was identified as having been ‘pinched”, or at least identified by the FBI, it would be reasonable to assume that Mr. Donaghy’s rusted out 1956 Plymouth Dart (assuming he had one) would be of more value than his very life. When one dances with the devil, one should expect some heat.

I don’t mean to diminish the value of anyone’s life by making such a glib statement, but it should be noted that Mr. Donaghy must surely have known he had a potential problem when he was contacted by The Mob. And these are not just “low level” street thugs; the Gambino family has been around a long time. These are folks that citizens need to stay clear of. It’s often been said that the Sicilian/Italian Mafia will not go out of its way to bother folks who have no association; they’re much too smart and have at least a code of honor – even if the concept of honor is their very own. Step inside their realm, however, and the gloves come off. I suppose they could probably be good friends to have under certain circumstances, but they most certainly could turn out to be one’s worst enemy – and greatest fear - as Mr. Donaghy is probably figuring out. Especially if their interests are threatened which, in this case, may well be if the situation is as far-reaching as some speculate.

A gambler’s addiction is as real as addictions come. It is as oppressive and compelling as addictions to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Mr. Donaghy may well fall within such a category and out of desperation, reached as deeply as he possibly could to find a way out of the mess he’d gotten himself into. Make no mistake; Mr. Donaghy has no one to blame but himself. I would also venture to say that the Gambino crew could not care less about his addiction except in how it will affect them. Strange it is that one may find oneself agreeing with the Gambino crew in this case. After all, they took a “business” risk and have a certain expectation of returns. They helped someone “get out of trouble”, and now their good favor is being rejected because the heat’s on as well it should be.

Aside from the obvious ramifications involving a team’s potentially rightful claim to a victory and/or title it may have been denied, there is something much more sinister and far-reaching than just who may or may not have won a play-off or title game. Mr. Donaghy sold his soul for cash and in so doing placed himself, his family, his reputation, and his livelihood in jeopardy. I have no idea what professional sports referees earn per game, but I would venture to suggest that it is enough for what it’s worth and in the grand scheme, its inherent value verses a deal with the mob is of far greater value than any amount of money.

Constitutional Rights in Conflict

The public’s right to known vs. the individual’s right to due process”

Two boys, aged 15 and 17, have been arrested and charged with capital murder. During the arraignment one flashes a smile to a family member in the gallery. Later the two boys are talking quietly among themselves and are heard to be giggling. An editorial writer questions whether these two boys are fully aware of the gravity of this situation. Do these boys, both slightly built and as wide-eyed as any other kid filled with wonderment, understand that they stand accused of murder and that they could possibly spend the rest of their natural lives in prison? Do they fully comprehend the fact that a family’s life has been shattered due to their cavalier attitudes and callous acts?

Wait. Did I just convict these boys? Did I presume their guilt? Did I just assume that because they stand accused that they must have done it? Have I yet to realize that an arraignment is not a trial, that these boys – eyewitnesses gathered or not – are “innocent until proven guilty” in court by a judge and/or jury? Does any of this even matter? Surely the police had good reason to arrest these kids and bring them up on charges. Surely having seen these boys’ photos in the paper, I now know that they are guilty absent the official verdict especially since the crime – including their faces – is captured on video tape.

According to the Bill of Rights, a citizen is entitled to due process; it is specifically enumerated in the fifth and fourteenth amendments. However, the public’s right to know is not specifically enumerated even though it is implied by the first amendment’s freedom of the press. Court dockets are considered public information, and news organizations report what they find. If photographs of the accused (mug shots) are available, so much the better to report. After all, the public has this “right to know”, yes?

While it is reasonable to appreciate our right, or rather our need, to know of potentially dangerous persons especially if they bond out, we must also understand that being fair and impartial after so much press coverage can be difficult. This is significant because those who would read such articles would necessarily be among a pool of potential jurors who may be called to hear such a case. It is in the best interests of all involved that the US Constitution be respected and appreciated for everything it means and implies, especially in such a case in which kids are on trial for their very lives. Our society rightly expects and demands that those responsible for capital crimes be brought to account, but our very system of justice demands that we be as fair as is humanly possible. When the public is informed that the victim in this particular case was a “pillar” of his community and was gunned down needlessly and mercilessly, how can the public fairly or impartially respond beyond its emotional capacity?

The now-well-known Duke lacrosse players stood falsely accused and were put through unmitigated hell for over a year because of a zealous and politically motivated prosecutor. It did not help that the boys who stood accused were white and perceived as “privileged” who had raped a poor, black working girl. Several faculty members at Duke as well as the ever-present Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson all wanted these players’ collective liver on a stick (some faculty even went so far as to take out a full-page newspaper ad revealing their disdain for these “criminals”). Now that the charges have been proved false, the prosecutor has been disbarred and may well be held in criminal contempt with requisite jail time although it is reported that he may only face 30 days. Is this “just” in light of the fact that he virtually took more than a year from each of these young men’s lives?

The moronic “public” which demanded that nothing less than tar-and-feathering would be good enough for these men who have since been publicly vindicated remains strangely silent, but certainly not for the sake of “justice”. The boys had been suspended from school for merely being accused. Now that it has been proved that these young men were, in fact, the real victims, only the prosecutor stands to lose anything. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Duke faculty stroll merely along as the narrow-minded zealots they are because there is no entity that exists which can hold them accountable for their eagerness to deny the lacrosse players their constitutionally protected “due process” while zealously advocating “due process” for another.

How can any sort of balance be achieved in such matters? If a crime has been committed, this is news worthy of press coverage. If someone is arrested in connection with said crime, it is still news but the dynamic is changed, for now someone is entitled to due process by fair and impartial players who are being fed by photos, accusations, and speculation. After the public has been suitably saturated with such reporting, a select few will be asked to disregard all that has been reported and hear nothing but fact. The accused begins his or her trial behind the eight ball. And if, as in the case of the two boys, there is a video tape that has been publicly disseminated on the local news shows, there is not much left to discuss except what sort of sentence can be meted out and whether the 15-year-old should be tried as a juvenile or an adult.

Are those who are caught on tape any less worthy of a presumption of innocence? A picture is worth a thousand words, and it would ideally contain irrefutable evidence. Outside of the photo frame, can there be mitigating circumstances that may diminish or enhance the severity of the crime? If so, should the public have such unlimited access before such a case is even brought to trial? Does the press have unlimited freedom to present what is potentially evidence to the public? If we are swayed by what we see – and we are – and the accused is “guilty” in our eyes, has there been a violation of a constitutional right to due process? Has freedom of the press been overstated?

It seems to me that once an accused person has been arrested, the reporting must necessarily end there. A police investigation has come far enough to warrant reasonable suspicion, but evidence that is gathered in the course of such an investigation must be handled carefully so as not to be tainted or manipulated. Our public speculation about collected evidence is irrelevant. Once this evidence is presented in trial, ideally for the first time in public, it can then be reported as fact and not mere speculation.

Absent an alternative, ours is still the best legal system in the world. We lament about rights of the accused which seem to disregard or overshadow the victims who also deserve to see justice done, but we must always be mindful of the whole premise of our legal system which maintains one’s innocence until proven otherwise. The judicial system seems to be doing its part. I suppose now it is up to the rest of us not to jump to conclusions, secure in the hope that the same constitutional courtesies would be extended to us.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

It Happened in 1977

* Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was the first Arab to visit Israel and acknowledge her right to exist.
* MRI is first used
* “Son of Sam” murderer is arrested
* Panama Canal treaty was signed by then-President Carter
* The first Concord flight departs from NY’s JFK airport
* The Alaskan pipeline is completed
* The first black Miss Universe was crowned
* President Jimmy Carter pardons Vietnam-era draft dodgers
* First female Episcopal priest was ordained
* Elvis Presley died
* Some of the greatest people I know graduated from high school in Dumas AR

Thirty years later we all gathered in our hometown to say hello, catch up on the past, remember some funny and sometimes embarrassing moments, and attempt to turn back the clock if only for a day.

It was great to see so many of those whom I had actually known since kindergarten. Life, and families, and towns were not so transient then. We had a few classmates come and go, many now long forgotten, but my own children are constantly amazed at how long I had known so many since they were forced to move often early in my career life.

It never fails that I get a little melancholy whenever I visit my hometown, especially when it comes time to leave but leave I must. Dumas is no longer my home although it will always be my hometown. Though my parents still live in Dumas, I don’t think this hometown concept will change much once their time is past. Spending so many years with the same people during the formative years of childhood creates a special attachment that I think can never be severed even as distance, careers, and age come between us. For good or bad, we will always be the class of ’77. This reality is actually much more profound than it sounds because as I shared with the class during a speech in honor and in memory of our classmates who have since passed on, we are each a part of another’s past. Whether the impact of one’s life has been positive or negative, it is there nevertheless and can never be eradicated – not completely. We can only pray that the negative will be forgiven.

I think about my classmates often especially since I am still a student. I was a less-than-stellar student during those years, and many of my classmates tried to encourage me to do better in school. I did my level best to drink away my last two years of school, but all that was accomplished by this was that I spent a lot of money I’ll never see again. All the encouragement that was offered to me, however, did not take root until years later. I’m still pursuing that ever-elusive college degree, but I’m doing it stone sober and with the support of a wonderful family who picked up where those God-given classmates left off.

My prayer, in remembering how much these people meant to me then and still mean to me now, is that maybe in some small way I was able to bless them as they have all blessed me.

My best to the Dumas High School class of 1977. Good health and the Lord’s peace be with each of you and those whom you love.


Saturday, July 07, 2007


2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

There is not a day that goes by when we don’t make choices. Some choices are subtle and almost unconsciously done out of sheer force of habit; others are planned and intentional or are knee-jerk reactions to a particular situation. Most of the time, however, we as rational humans can be pretty sure that if we take the time to weigh all the information available to us and examine the potential outcome, including possible consequences, we will make at least better choices than if we are pushed into a situation in which we may feel compelled to make a rash decision that will be based more on emotions we are feeling at that moment rather than on facts we may have available at the time.

Like Naaman from 2 Kings 5, the choices we make will almost always have been made according to its potential outcome and how it will affect us personally or those whom we love. And also like Naaman, sometimes our choices will be the result of our willingness to believe the information that is being offered to us out of desperation, even information which could be coming from questionable sources. Naaman’s source of information that Israel’s prophet would be able to cure his leprosy came from a young, captured girl from Israel. Naaman, being a warrior, might have smelled a rat under other circumstances. After all, he could be walking into a trap since the Israelite girl could possibly have something to gain by Naaman falling. According to what is written, however, Naaman could very well have also been a vain man. He obviously had everything going for him except for one thing: his physical appearance was marred by leprosy. Evidently it was, to him, worth any possible risk, or he could have been arrogant enough to believe that he would be able to overcome any threat to himself.

Often it is, I think, that the rewards or consequences of the choices we make will not always be so readily apparent. For this reason it can sometimes be easy to lose heart and give up prematurely when we set out to work intentionally for the Lord such as when we get all fired up about a new ministry opportunity. We see the disciples whom Jesus dispatched to spread the Gospel return to Him and report on what happened during their time out among the people. They apparently enjoyed enough evidence that they were, in the name of the Lord, able to excise demons! Not a bad pay-off for an honest day’s work to be able to see right away the results of faithful attention.

What about the rest of us? I cannot recall ever seeing such a transformation in anyone as a result of something I did or said and I certainly don’t recall ever “seeing” any demons submit themselves to me, so reading such Gospel stories as in Luke makes me wonder if perhaps I’m doing something wrong or not doing something enough. Worse still, I wonder if I possess the faith necessary to be able to make something like this happen or that my motive is suspect. I’ve asked the Lord for plenty for the sake of someone else but have seen more rejection than acceptance. For this reason some Bible stories are difficult for me because I wonder why such things happened then but don’t seem to happen now, and I know I’m not alone.

I think the greatest hindrance to being able to do such things is wrapped up in the fact that most of us, though we may claim the title ‘disciple’, have secular jobs that require so much of our time and attention. We just don’t have the time to devote to such discipleship that those in Jesus’ time obviously did, or at least those in this Gospel story. I don’t think this means we are excused; it just may mean that we have to focus in a different direction. I also wonder if maybe we take such readings a little too literally (“Lord, in Your name even the demons submit…”). We may have a mistaken image of evil-looking ghosts rising out of a poor person’s body and bowing down before the disciples! That image may be a little over the top for us!

But this passage does not focus on “demons”, per se, more than it focuses on the success of the ministry and the announcement that the "kingdom is near", regardless of how the message is received. The disciples are excited about what they’ve experienced, and it would appear that they could not wait to return to Jesus to tell Him what had been happening while they were out among the people. Keep in mind, however, that they were warned before they were sent out to be prepared for rejections. Given this, then, the disciples went out into the world with their eyes wide open. In other words, they were given all the instructions they would need in order to make a conscious choice in favor of the Gospel. No promises, no illusions of grandeur.

Jesus was – is – well aware that there will be rejections of the Gospel. It’s hard to imagine such rejection, but we are also aware that the Word of the Lord challenges us to reject the promises of this world in favor of promises yet to come, promises not tangible, not readily evident. For any disciple, that’s a pretty tall order. It is a daily challenge for disciples who are “of the Spirit” to reject what would normally be considered “success” for ourselves in this life in favor of a kingdom we cannot see.

We must also be mindful of Jesus’ admonition to the disciples who were overly pleased with themselves that “the demons submitted…” Maybe it is that there was reason to be joyful over submissive demons but according to Jesus, there is much more to it than they can see. According to the text, the disciples “saw” something; exactly what they were seeing we cannot be sure of, but the results of their work seemed to be immediate. The gratification we so desperately seek in this life came to them; they could see their results and know that their work was not in vain. They made a choice to serve the Lord and they were able to see something because of the choice they made, but Jesus told them that their true reward is yet to come.

The choices we have before us are not always clear. We adults can oftentimes fall back on our experiences to lead and guide us, but the danger in this is that our experiences are based on how the WORLD responds and reacts and our choices will be made accordingly.

The people of God, however, are of a whole new and different reality. It cannot be much different than the new reality of Israel as Joshua led the people into the Promised Land against all odds and formed a new nation. “Therefore, fear the Lord; serve Him in sincerity and in truth and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:14-15

The choice is before us everyday whether we make intentional or subconscious choices. We can choose in favor of the world, “the gods of the Amorites”, or we can make our choice in favor of the world that is to come. “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants my live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a

Life is always a good choice. Choose well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sitting on the edge of Faith

My faith is such that a good spiritual cleansing is usually in order. What I mean by this is that I am always up for a doctrinal or theological challenge that forces me to confront my own sense of faith and causes me to critically analyze what I believe, what I think I believe, and what I perhaps ought to believe. It’s not always easy and more often than not it seems to cause me more than a little distress, but it is necessary for me to be confronted where I am because my life is far less than the perfect portrait of what a disciple of Christ ought to be.

It is put best by writer George H. Birkett who wrote, “While I have yet to doubt God, I do doubt some of the claims that people make about God. When individuals claim to have found God and know Him as no man can, bless them; I am pleased for them, but I have my doubts. When they attach themselves to some few scriptures that particularly suit them, when they cite these scriptures as being THE answer, when they insist that all who wish salvation must follow the path THEY have chosen, I have my doubts. When the words of the Bible are cited as being as infallible as God, I have my doubts.”

Me, too. And oddly enough, my doubts and questions have come as a result of religious, doctrinal, and theological education and training. One might think that such a pursuit of education might actually help to strengthen one’s faith and not push one closer to the edge of the abyss of doubt. Still it does this and more because I have found myself more and more critical and doubtful not only of my own place as a Christian and as a preacher, but I seriously question those others who serve in the same capacity. And those preachers on TV who wear expensive jewelry and custom tailored suits are, to me, nothing more than religious entertainers because they also present themselves as possessors of absolute truth and knowledge.

To make matters worse, whenever I choose to confide in some whom I consider to be fellow disciples on the same spiritual journey of exploration, they want to dismiss my doubts as the “work of the devil” who is constantly on the prowl and seeking to destroy faith wherever he can find it. Can the answer be so simple? I know I’ve encountered some who will live and breathe in such proclamations. I just don’t happen to believe that the devil himself sees me as much of a threat one way or the other. In fact, I tend to believe that those who believe that the devil is personally out to destroy them or their faith are over-the-top arrogant. And I tend to think that those who try to present themselves as “holier than thou” are vainly trying to convince themselves of something they are as unsure of. My cynical nature being what it is, there are very few persons who demonstrate to me that their faith is as real as it ought to be, as real to them as I want my faith to be to me.

This is not to suggest that anyone owes me anything beyond the respect every human person inherently deserves, but why must I set aside anything I believe or even question in favor of those who make such proclamations of “absolute” truth? Why can’t every disciple acknowledge that life on this earth is a constant journey of discovery in which we, as humans and without exception, have the capacity to learn something new everyday that we did not know before? Why can we not embrace the words of the prophet who reminds us that the Lord’s mind is His own and not ours? It grieves me in some ways that I seem to be missing out on something these others claim to possess. It causes me to wonder two things: a) is there just no such thing, or b) is there is a divine being who is just not talking to me. I tend toward the latter.

Granted, I don’t pay nearly enough attention to my spiritual life, and there is no one to blame but myself. I spend entirely too much time at work (secular). My time away from work is split between my family and my schooling which seems to have no end in site since I can only attend part time. That leaves precious little time to devote to my pastorate, let alone my own spiritual needs; and because I spend so little time in serious contemplation, my doubts and my failures as a Christian threaten to overwhelm me. It is little wonder that those who encounter me cannot tell by my speech and demeanor that I am a church pastor.

Here’s the thing, though. I am painfully aware of my failings as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor (thankfully, I’m doing pretty well at school!), but I also wonder if it is possible that I am only making things harder than they have to be. Could it really be as simple as “be saved”? I have a very hard time with that overly simplistic theology because I happen to believe that the Lord expects more from us and because I believe this to be true, I spend too much of my time feeling like a failure. Work is mundane and routine, and school seems altogether pointless because I am having such a difficult time finding my footing.

One thing I can do until I find my way is to remember that I certainly do not possess all knowledge of all truth, that I am trapped by my shortcomings because I cannot let go of the requisite guilt. I can also remember that, at the very least, I have a conscience that bothers me; thus, it is still working. I can also remember that even as a pastor, I am merely on a journey with everyone else. Whether I am ordained by God or man is of little consequence if I fail to remember that even the Savior came to serve and not be served. If only we could all be so mindful.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Dear Madam Speaker:

Speaker Pelosi, do tell. The Congress has the lowest approval rating perhaps ever in its history, and you continue to disavow any part in it even though you have been a part of that institution since 1988. You merely wring your hands and state, “Congress has never been popular.” Why do you suppose this to be an accurate assessment? Could it be that the only thing the Congress can be counted on to accomplish is that which would professionally and financially benefit its members or its member’s families? Of course, this could not be it. It must be those darned Republicans/Democrats (depending on who’s speaking into the microphone at the time).

The Congress overall is perhaps the most ineffective government institution, and yet individual members continue to blame “________” (fill in the blank. Any answer is as good as the next.). And with a presidential race already – and prematurely, I might add – heating up, the American people can expect little else beyond what we are seeing now: two opposing parties desperately clambering for more control (read “power”) and a greater majority, wasting time wishing for something instead of dealing with the existing realities. What we have before us in the Congress is nothing more than a school-yard shoving and shouting match with most communication (read “name-calling”, “finger-pointing”) being done via media sound bites. Nothing will be accomplished just as nothing has been accomplished because few have the temerity or the tenacity to put a stop to it, especially those so-called “leaders”. It is much easier to blame someone else than to step up to the plate like the LEADER each claims to be. After all, there is an election season right around the corner. DOING the right thing is not nearly as effective as speaking into a well-placed microphone about who is to blame for the right thing never having been done, and it is especially effective to blame the institution itself as inherently troubled and beyond the scope and reach of man to correct.

Sad to say, however, that Speaker Pelosi’s statement about Congress “never” having been popular is a sorry reflection of the general voting public. In a nutshell, we are getting what we asked for. How can it be, for instance, that Congress as a body and as an institution has “never” been popular with the people, yet an individual incumbent has a better than 90% chance that he or she will be reelected? What does this say about the American public? Not much, I’m afraid, and what little such things do say about the voting public is not favorable. We are complacent, and soon we will pay dearly for our lack of attention. The truth is, while the Democrats insist that they are trying to hold the president accountable, there is no one willing to hold the Congress accountable.

One of the big congressional issues currently being tossed back and forth as the other party’s “fault” is earmarks, better known as “pork barrel politics” by which incumbents bring home the bacon to congressional districts as “proof” that they are as effective as legislators as their campaign materials would have us to believe. The issue at hand on these earmarks is whether or not the mark’s sponsor should be identified at the outset. To be perfectly honest, how this is an issue in and of itself is a mystery to me considering that the congressman or senator is all too happy to attach his or her name to the cash once it reaches its intended destination with more than enough photo ops to go around on reelection circulars.

Earmarks, however, are not as much of a congressional procedural problem as they are a payoff to a complacent voting public that continues to demand irresponsible stewardship of limited resources while decrying deficit spending, apparently failing to realize where the money comes from. While we are happy to have new opportunities presented to our districts that may translate into new jobs, we fail to make the connection between these millions of dollars in not-so-important projects and the budget deficit or the national debt; it is much easier to blame the sitting president. It is our ignorance of basic civics that allows us to get caught up in the blame-gaming and name-calling. Since the president is only one person with a name, he is much easier to blame especially since a budget proposal actually comes from the office of the President. After it reaches the Congress, however, it’s a whole new ball game. By the time a finalized version of this same budget makes it to the president, he can sign it or veto it since it is highly unlikely that the new budget will look anything like what he originally proposed. The ultimate power to spend money rests with the Congress and no other, the very same Congress that currently enjoys a 20% approval rating which is, incidentally, much lower than the president’s current approval rating.

There is indeed a problem, Madam Speaker, but I am more inclined to believe that the problem which does exist in the Congress is merely indicative of a greater problem, and the problem will continue for as long as a complacent voting public continues to vote for a more familiar name instead of actually paying attention to the business of this nation.

Do tell, indeed.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Spending the Dash

“The Dash”
Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what matter most of all
Was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
That she spent alive on earth
And now only those who loved her
Know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own;
The cars, the house, the cash.
What matters most is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
That can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
To consider what’s true and real
And always try to understand
The way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
And show appreciation more
And love the people in our lives
Like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
And more often wear a smile
Remembering that this special dash
Might only last a little while.

So when you’re eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?

Usually around late August and early September, comics that feature kids will almost always show them standing before the class reading their first homework assignment for the school term: an essay entitled, “How I spent my summer vacation”. Then the stories that usually follow include going to the mountains, to the beach, to grandma’s house, or to the amusement park. And oddly enough, I cannot recall too many instances in which the kids reported on their summer vacations with much enthusiasm. Maybe it was that the value of the summer vacation had been diminished by being reduced to a homework assignment.

I can remember such assignments from when I was in elementary school but, sadly, we never did much in the way of summer vacations when I was growing up. I can recall one trip to Six Flags over Texas and another to Branson MO but there were never any “family vacations” because my father was always working away from home and never took any time off from work, so our vacations were spent wherever he was. I cannot say that I feel deprived, but I also cannot say that much was accomplished. Unfortunately for my family now, that lack of vacationing is being passed on. We just never seem to get around to actually taking a “family vacation”. I just honestly don’t give it a lot of thought.

Now consider the life of actress Angelina Jolie (there is a point; I promise!). I read a recent interview with her in Parade magazine in which she spoke of her understanding of community service from what she learned as a child from her mother. Even though Ms. Jolie has walked on the wild side in her lifetime and lives a life many would disapprove of, I cannot help but to admire her sense of community responsibility in her work as a good will ambassador for the United Nations and for opening her home to adopted children even as she is able to bear children herself. She says she was taught from childhood that giving of herself in such a way is not just a chance to feel good about herself or get her name in the paper. Rather, it was imparted to her from her mother as her duty and responsibility as a member of the human race. Very Christ-like even as I do not know whether she even practices a particular religion.

It is unfortunate that we pay close attention when we are reminded that domestic violence is a learned behavior passed from one generation to the next, but we fail to make such a generational connection when it comes to positive, uplifting behavior that is also passed on from generation to generation. We fail to fully recognize that our children will never come to understand their place in society, their duties as Christians and the opportunities that come as a result, unless they are shown the way. Raising our children in church is a good start, but their Christian education must be broadened beyond the doors of the Church or the Sunday school classroom.

As I get older I often wonder how the “dash” in my own life will be defined. What sort of legacy am I leaving? What can be said about me at my eulogy beyond, “He was a loud preacher who did not need a microphone”? But far more important than how I lived my life will be how I will have taught my children and the children of the churches I serve how to define their own “dash” - because the impact of my time and yours on this earth will be measured for generations, well beyond the moment when the lids to our coffins are closed.

“Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” Jesus rebuked them, “You don’t know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
Luke 9:54b-56a

Following Jesus in the footsteps of righteousness means the edification – building up – of the lives of others, not attempting to tear them down. Lord knows even Christians cannot agree on much of anything, never mind the non-believers! But here’s the thing: no one is going to recognize Jesus unless they are shown His true portrait; one of service to others and not self-serving. The epitome of self-sacrifice is evidenced on the Cross – that same Cross I will remind you that Jesus DID NOT WANT (“Father, let this cup pass from Me…”)

The question of our dash at the time of our passing must include that moment of surrender to the Lord, most certainly, but beyond the grave it is told to us by Paul that simply claiming the name of Christ will not be enough if we did not live according to the Spirit that was granted to us. And notice that Paul’s list of that of building up vs. tearing down (Galatians 5:13-25).

Let our dash be one of life-building acknowledgements and service to others in the name of the Lord’s Covenant. Let our dash be that of a true witness who teaches children about the positive path of service and enlightenment, and let the path of our dash be lighted by the Word … the Word made flesh.